There was so much horror in America from 9/11 that I certainly did not think about David Skepner. But every year when crisp weather reminds me of a lovely morning in 2001, I think about him.
David was Loretta Lynn’s manager-for-life, a Beverly Hills guy come to Music City. He was assigned by the home office of MCA to supervise her career, and he moved to Nashville and helped turn her into a worldwide star.
In 1972 he fielded a request from the New York Times’ Appalachian correspondent – me – for an interview with Loretta, who was already dominating country music on her charm, beauty and voice. He did not invent her but he made sure she got the attention she deserved.
I knew her music, of course, and found out from a two-fisted county judge in Eastern Kentucky that Loretta had pulled her band off the road to play a benefit in Louisville for the families of 38 coal miners blown to kingdom come in the Hyden disaster I covered. I was touched by her zeal to make some money for her people.
Loretta won the Entertainer of the Year award in October of 1972, the first woman to be honored. The next morning, she did the national dawn TV shows and then Skepner ushered me into her room where she was tucked back into bed. I got a great interview – everybody always did – and the great Charlotte Curtis gave it prominent display in the NYT.
Two years later David decided the world needed a Loretta Lynn bio – and he promptly asked Pete Axthelm of Newsweek to write it. Ax had done a great cover story on Loretta but he couldn’t do the book (we would always laugh about that when we met) and so I got the call.
That meant, time on the road with Loretta.
David was the gatekeeper – a big dude, probably 6-foot-3 with matching persona and a big iron on his hip, as the song goes. I don’t believe he was ever in the service but he was a big military buff, who wore olive jackets and blue caps with Navy insignias and belonged to a pilots’ association.
Travelling with Loretta, security was always an issue, particularly when Mooney Lynn, her husband, was not around. I had been around guns in the mountains, but whenever we were indoors David would put the huge pistol (I have no idea what type) on a nearby table. I asked him if he could point it in the other direction – and cover it with his ball cap -- and he laughingly obliged.
David could be officious -- but he made things happen. Her book, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” leaped from her verbal ability into a best-seller, as David had known it would. And so did the movie, with so many talented people falling into place. A lucky boy, I was along for the ride.
At some point, David and I became friends. I moved from Kentucky back home to New York and we stayed in touch. Whenever I went to Nashville, we would meet at a Thai restaurant near Vanderbilt and he would catch me up.
In 1986, Loretta and David stopped working together – her call. He managed other acts (Dixie Chicks, Riders in the Sky) but whenever she needed professional advice – from somebody she could trust -- she would call David, and he was fine with that.
Weeks after 9/11, I called a friend in Nashville for something or other, and she asked if I had heard about Skepner, which sounded ominous, and she filled me in:
When 9/11 started to happen, David went into emergency mode. As a military guy, he undoubtedly saw this as war, and he wanted to be prepared. All circuits in full-red-tilt operation, he rushed down to gas up his car because…you never know…and as he stood there, pumping his own gas, he fell down, dead before he hit the ground.
Normally, David Skepner’s passing would have been noted in Music City but not in those first horrible days. Eventually, an article said David had one sister, but gave no more personal details.
Loretta went into a shell after Mooney passed in 1996 – so I never talked with her about David’s passing. But I used to call a few friends down there and we would talk about him as a force of life, who kept things together for Loretta.
Now, every year when 9/11 approaches, I think about David Skepner. Of all the people who died that day, I knew him best.
On his theory that it is not every day that a person turns 90, Frank Litsky threw himself a party the other night.
Frank drew over 40 old hands from the Times, who celebrated him – and our business, which was putting out the paper on deadline.
Looking great, sounding great, Frank noted others in his nonagenarian state – Tony Bennett, Fidel Castro, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Cloris Leachman, Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, Don Rickles, just to name a few. (The overall list is impressive.)
Colleagues from the 50’s and 60’s, Gay Talese and Bob Lipsyte, made lovely talks about Frank’s energy and knowledge and productivity.
In an informal chat, I reminded Frank of my nickname for him -- Four-Fifty. This stems from when I came over from Newsday in 1968 with a lot to say, and Frank was the day assignment editor who shoehorned stories into the section.
I would check in each day with proposals for lengthy rambles about the Amazing Mets or the post-Mantle Yankees, and Frank would cut me dead with the fatal words: “Four-fifty.” That is, 450 words
Frank Litsky stifled my imagination and made it impossible to show my stuff, to the point that my career and the paper suffered terribly. He has never repented.
We crowded into Coogan’s Restaurant in Washington Heights, near the armory which has been refurbished to house Frank’s beloved track and field. (The proprietor, Peter Walsh, himself a copy boy at the Times in the late ‘60’s, even serenaded us with a song in Gaelic.)
We all had histories with each other, over the decades: Sports editors who had made tough decisions. Copy editors who had pulled stories together minutes before the press run. Reporters who had broken good stories. Columnists who had typed our precious little thoughts. Clerks and office managers who made the whole thing work.
Margaret Roach, the journalist daughter of James Roach, the beloved sports editor of the ’60’s, was there. Joe Vecchione and Neil Amdur, two subsequent sports editors. Fern Turkowitz and now TerriAnn Glynn, who held the section together.
All of us could, if we tried, recall snit fits and frustrations with some of the people we were now hugging. But what we remembered most was somehow letting the esteemed production people push the button on time. What we had in common was the identification with the physical product that people held in their hands, read seriously. It is in our blood.
Frank Litsky, who covered Olympics and pro football and women’s basketball, has known good times and terrible times, and now he sat there, a wise old Buddha figure with a New York accent, with “the love of my life,” Zina Greene, listening to old stories, some true.
One thing I learned that night was that in his alleged retirement, Frank has contributed over 100 obituaries of sports figures, sitting there in the digital can.
I am betting all his masterpieces go over 450 words. Just saying.
Altenir Silva, my friend from Brazil, had a one-minute play produced at the New Workshop Theatre, Brooklyn College, in June.
It is called “She Loves Pepsi and He Drinks Coca-Cola.”
Needless to say, it is about relationships.
I told him it sounds like “Waiting for Godot,” only with a redhead with a Russian accent.
Altenir has written for Brazilian television and has also written several movies, including the touching “Curitiba Zero Degree,” about four men whose lives intersect in gritty corners of a large southern city.
The film has a hopeful message, rare anywhere.
The trailer for the film:
I was in awe of Sam Toperoff days into my freshman year at Hofstra College. From my workship with the athletic department, I knew he was a transfer basketball player, out of the service, waiting to play the following season.
Then he turned up in a sociology class, and he stood out. He was 5-6 years older than me and knew how to talk in class.
I still remember Professor Nelson explaining the sociological concept of brothers and others – the circles of life, people we care about, people we don’t necessarily care about.
“You, Toperoff, are my brother,” Professor Nelson said, “and the rest are others.”
A hundred people in this huge lecture hall, and the professor knew Sam’s name.
Toperoff started for a couple of seasons of varsity ball. My strongest memory of him is singing – maybe a Belafonte song? – in the locker room before a road game, nervous energy, channeled into song.
He was a force. Stephen Dunn, the shooting guard, now a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, tells about listening to Sam and another teammate in a hotel room, talking about Moby Dick. Imagine. Not women or zone defenses, but words, concepts.
(That was quite a team -- a novelist and a poet, starting.)
Sam taught at Hofstra for 20 years and has written 13 books on extremely varied subjects, including the gripping Pilgrim of the Sun and Stars, about a Basque peasant who makes a pilgrimage to the Vatican. Sam also wrote sports for magazines and for 15 years worked for public television, most notably a travelogue series. My wife bought all of them.
Now Sam lives in the French Alps (in a house he built) with his wife and daughter and grandson. He is a hero to his pals because he has continued to write. Lillian & Dash, his novel about the long affair between Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, is being published by Other Press in July of 2013.
Sam has gotten good advance attention, including a Kirkus review. The novel is available via Amazon and other sources. I've read it, and I love the dialogue and insight into two talented people from another time and place.
It’s been a lot of decades; Toperoff still scores.
In the Copacabana section of Rio de Janeiro, Altenir Jose Silva imitates John Sterling.
Silva is a writer with television and movie credits in Brazil, and he also writes in English, including a recent play about F. Scott Fitzgerald.
He also pays around $70 a year to subscribe to a web site that streams Yankee games, direct from New York. He works on his English by shouting, “YANKEES WIN! Thuh-h-h-h-h Yankees! Win!”
(It’s only fair. Some Americans imitate soccer goal calls by South Americans.)
Silva and I become email pals, and he is a frequent contributor to this site.
Recently, he visited New York for a screenplay course and he and his wife, Célia, took their last big trip before she delivers their first child, after years of marriage.
We met for the first time at Foley’s, the Irish baseball pub on W. 33rd St. and he had already bought tickets to last Saturday’s Yankee game. Altenir and Célia were glad to hear Curtis Granderson was back in the lineup after his injury; Altenir gave his version of John Sterling’s rendition of “The Grandy-man can, oh the Grandy-man can.”
From the nation of Pelé and Sócrates and Romario and Neymar, a man sings of Curtis Granderson.
The very nice publicity director of the Yankees, Jason Zillo, arranged for a greeting for Altenir and Célia on the message board before the home half of the third. I advised them to have their cameras ready.
They are great tourists. On their last night here, they caught Woody Allen’s weekly appearance at the Café Carlyle with The Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band. Now they are back home in Rio. Instead of imitating Tom Jobim or Caetano Veloso, Altenir warbles along with John Sterling.
We recently visited friends for a lovely dinner and conversa-tion. The highlight just might have been seeing a new cycle of work by our hostess, Rosa Silverman.
The nice thing about having a web site is being able to display art, just because.
(Note: My friend and mentor, Stan Isaacs, the long-time Newsday sports columnist, is temporarily without an outlet due to web problems. He always has a place here. GV.)
Ozzie Guillen Struck a Few Chords
The flap over Ozzie Guillen’s comments considered sympathetic to Fidel Castro reminds me of George Romney. Not Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, but his father, George, who was a governor of Michigan and had presidential aspirations of his own that petered out.
George Romney pretty much eliminated himself from contention for the 1968 Republican nomination because of one comment. In mid-1967 he reversed his earlier support for the Vietnam War; he said he had been brainwashed by American generals. As we all came to realize, Romney was correct to have turned against that disastrous war, but the American people didn’t want to hear it. Exit Romney.
Now, along comes the colorful Ozzie Guillen saying things that have more than a tinge of truth to it, but also angered many people because he showed some sympathy for Fidel Castro. Guillen is the new manager of the Marlins of Miami, the city known for having a rabid anti-Castro community. Anything positive said about Castro feeds the hatred of people who have never forgiven Castro (the left wing dictator) for replacing Fulgencio Batista (the right-wing dictator) in 1959.
Here is what Guillen told a Time Magazine internet edition website: “I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro. You know why?. Many people have tried to kill Fidel Castro in the last 60 years , yet that mother ------ is still there.” Indeed. Castro is living through his 11th American President in Barack Obama.
The anti-Castro oldsters jumped on Guillen for actually saying he loved Castro. So did some of the politicians running for office now, because the anti-Castro community in Miami has been so powerful for so long. It has cowed not only local politicians but Presidential candidates. The enigmatic Guillen most likely wasn’t thinking about all that.
Castro is no civil libertarian. He has executed people who worked against the regime. But consider Castro’s background. Almost from the time he took power and edged toward an alliance with the Soviet Union in the face of opposition from the United States, he has had to worry about being deposed by the United States.
This is not paranoia. In April, 1961, President Kennedy supported the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro partisans determined to take back their former homeland. The invasion was a disaster but it alerted Castro to ever be on the alert against further attempts to subvert his regime. He has been ruthless at time in eliminating opposition, because the opposition centered in Miami has never stopped calling for the removal of Castro. We still have an embargo against Cuba that hurts, not Castro, but ordinary Cubans.
I was in Cuba some 30 years ago. I found that the Cubans hated the United States government for trying to bring down Castro, but loved Americans. We were treated well wherever we went. We heard criticism of Castro by people who didn’t seem to fear retribution for the comments. Most Cubans cared more about making a living than worrying about the lack of civil liberties that were the concern of the few genuine patriots who objected to Castro’s excesses.
Guillen is a colorful gent, who has often made outrageous remarks that were as confusing as they were amusing. This time he made the mistake of getting himself involved in the super-charged area of Cuban politics. His comments were not so much for Castro, the politician, as Castro, the man who outlasted all the people who have tried to kill him. Many plots were born in the Miami Cuban area.
Gullen said he loved Castro, sure, but he also called him a mother ------. That’s hardly the comment of a deep political thinker. It could be argued that he had the First Amendment right to say anything he wanted. But it doesn’t work that way in the world’s most heralded democracy because we are—from Eisenhower to Obama--bedeviled by the anti-Castro faction.
So Guillen soon found out he had stepped in it and had to apologize for his comments. The Marlins suspended him for five games. And before a press conference in which he grovelled an apology, management surrounded him with people who knew first hand of Castro’s brutality. Guillen cried as they spoke. “I know I hurt a lot of people,” he said.
One of the offshoots of the controversy was the revelation that Miami, for all its anti-Castro mania, is changing. At a protest calling for Guillen”s removal, only 200 people came out. The group leading it, a Miami report said, was a fringe organization always looking for reasons to break out the picket signs out of their car trunks. The average age of those holding the signs seemed over 70.
Little Havana used to bristle with the antennae of eight or so anti-Castro radio stations. There are two left. Most people seemed to accept Guillen’s apology. Suddenly there is room in Little Havana for nuance.
I have been surprised by another fallout of l’affair Guillen: criticism of the United States. Bryant Gumbel said on his HBO show, “And while there is no way to defend Ozzie or the blatant insensitivity of his remarks, let’s not pretend there’s no politics at work in some of those calls for his ouster. Whipping up a frenzy over slights real and imagined is a play straight out of a far-right handbook; Florida’s electoral clout has often given Fidel’s critics far more leverage that their arguments merit.”
An unidentified critic of the United States added this heresy on Google: “While Castro is undeniably guilty of subverting the civil liberties of Cubans and he did kill many political dissidents, the scale of his crimes does not even approach that of the crimes of the United States government against Cuba and many Latin countries. In reality our opposition to the Castro regime has everything to do with his unwillingness to play ball like his predecessor Batista.
“The reaction to Guillen’s comments just further illustrates the unwillingness of Americans to condemn the truth about our own transgressions. We need to realize how ridiculous we sound when we criticize the human rights record of another country when one considers our own.”
If we’re lucky in life, we meet somebody who teaches us just by existing; I’ve been fortunate to have two for the price of one.
Stan Isaacs acted as a mentor when I started out taking high-school basketball games over the telephone at Newsday. He was the iconoclastic sports columnist, one of the best in the business, and he somehow found time to praise and criticize, escorting me to ball parks, showing me how it all worked.
Then Stan invited us to his home, to meet his wife. It did not take long to recognize that Bobbie Isaacs was always going to be the adult in any room. In my early twenties, I found myself watching her, how she listened, how she smiled, how she kept the conversation going, something like a point guard who keeps the ball moving, but does not need to take a shot.
We could be talking politics or the newspaper business or sports, with me grumbling over which manager wasn’t talking or which player was a good interview. Bobbie always seemed interested in what we were saying.
She was a social worker, trained to observe, meeting families with serious troubles, She did not talk about her work, at least when I was around. It took me a while to figure out the kind of heavy-duty cases she handled.
I watched her with Stan, and their three daughters, and their smart and involved friends. This is how a grownup acts, I thought. My wife the painter managed to establish that Bobbie was also an artist, a quilter of real talent. Until last week I did not know she was also an ace at crossword puzzles.
Stan and Bobbie were also examples in the way they handled retirement, giving up their warm home on Long Island, finding a complex outside Philadelphia, with facilities that ranged from independent living to medical care. As usual, their friends were interesting and diverse. Bobbie and Stan became part of the daily life at their new home, taking part in the senior-olympic competitions. I found out only last week that, social worker to the core, Bobbie had arranged for people and their pets to visit the homebound.
When I heard that Bobbie’s health was deteriorating, I called her a few months ago. She was the same person I had known for half a century -- asking about my family, my work. How was she? A little tired, she said. She passed on Jan. 22 at the age of 82. Our thoughts go out to Stan, Nancy, Ann and Ellen and their families. Thank you for sharing Bobbie.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.